POLITICS: White House

White House tries to insulate President Obama from growing controversies

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Photo - WASHINGTON - APRIL 3:  U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the Associated Press luncheon during the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) Convention at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park Hotel April 3, 2012in Washington, D.C.  Obama criticized the Republican budget proposal during his remarks.  (Photo by Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - APRIL 3: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the Associated Press luncheon during the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) Convention at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park Hotel April 3, 2012in Washington, D.C. Obama criticized the Republican budget proposal during his remarks. (Photo by Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images)
Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Politics Digest,Barack Obama

White House aides on Tuesday tried to distance President Obama from the growing controversies over the IRS' targeting of conservative groups and the Justice Department's monitoring of journalists' phones by pleading total ignorance of events already starting to overshadow virtually every other issue on the president's agenda.

But even Democrats fear that the Obama administration's strategy of laying low and keeping quiet may only intensify scrutiny of the president and make it harder for him to escape blame for the actions of those working below him.

"They're just dragging this out," said one veteran Democratic strategist, pointing to clean-up efforts during President Clinton's second term. "Dodge, delay and shifting blame doesn't work in situations like these. They need to get out in front of this. Instead, they're failing crisis management 101."

The president waited for an inspector general's report on the IRS activities to finally condemn the actions.

"The report's findings are intolerable and inexcusable," he said in a statement released late Tuesday. "I've directed [Treasury Secretary Jack Lew] to hold those responsible for these failures accountable, and to make sure that each of the inspector general's recommendations are implemented quickly, so that such conduct never happens again."

Obama has for months been hounded by Republican questions over his handling of the deadly Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, but so far the president hasn't paid a heavy political price for not providing a clear explanation of what happened there. The public, however, is far more likely to worry about domestic issues like the Internal Revenue Service targeting the tax-exempt status of conservative groups and the Justice Department secretly monitoring 20 telephones used by Associated Press journalists, officials said.

With their responses, congressional Democrats are upping the pressure on the White House to address the controversies more forcefully.

"I have trouble defending what the Justice Department did," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "I don't know who did it, why it was done, but it's inexcusable, and there is no way to justify this."

Still, Obama spokesman Jay Carney on Tuesday maintained that the White House only learned of the Justice Department's monitoring of journalists from news reports. And Attorney General Eric Holder insisted he had nothing to do with the decision to subpoena AP phone records to track a press leak, though he defended his department's pursuit of the information.

"It put the American people at risk, and that is not hyperbole," Holder said. "And trying to determine who was responsible for that I think required very aggressive action."

Holder is set to appear at a previously scheduled House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, where he's likely to face a grilling from lawmakers who until now have not been satisfied with the administration's answers.

For their part, Republicans say they will devote the summer months to getting more answers from Obama about Benghazi and the secretive activity at the IRS and Justice Department.

"In each of these cases, the White House has refused to take any responsibility," said Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga. "Instead, the president and his administration have obfuscated, shifted blame or questioned the motives of those genuinely concerned with seeking resolution to these matters. Absent such leadership, I must ask: Mr. President, how can the American people trust you?"

bhughes@washingtonexaminer.com

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